Second language processing differs for negative words

June, 2012

A study involving Chinese-English bilinguals shows how words with negative emotional connotations don’t automatically access native translations, while those with positive or neutral emotions do.

Here’s an intriguing study for those interested in how language affects how we think. It’s also of interest to those who speak more than one language or are interested in learning another language, because it deals with the long-debated question as to whether bilinguals working in their non-native language automatically access the native-language representations in long-term memory, or whether they can ‘switch off’ their native language and use only the target language memory codes.

The study follows on from an earlier study by the same researchers that indicated, through the demonstration of hidden priming effects, that bilinguals subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language. In this new study, 45 university students (15 native English speakers, 15 native Chinese speakers, and 15 Chinese-English bilinguals) were shown two blocks of 90 word pairs. The pairs could have positive emotional value (e.g., honesty-program), negative valence (failure-poet), or neutral valence (aim-carpenter); could be semantically related (virus-bacteria; love-rose) or unrelated (weather-gender). The English or Chinese words were flashed on the screen one at a time, with a brief interval between the first and second word. The students had to indicate whether the second word was related in meaning to the first, and their brain activity was monitored.

The English and Chinese speakers acted as controls — it was the bilinguals, of course, who were the real interest. Some of the English word pairs shared a sound in the Chinese translation. If the Chinese words were automatically activated, therefore, the sound repetition would have a priming effect.

This is indeed what was found (confirming the earlier finding and supporting the idea that native language translations are automatically activated) — but here’s the interesting thing: the priming effect occurred only for positive and neutral words. It did not occur when the bilinguals saw negative words such as war, discomfort, inconvenience, and unfortunate.

The finding, which surprised the researchers, is nonetheless consistent with previous evidence that anger, swearing or discussing intimate feelings has more power in a speaker's native language. Parents, too, tend to speak to their infants in their native tongue. Emotion, it seems, is more strongly linked to our first language.

It’s traditionally thought that second language processing is fundamentally determined by the age of acquisition and the level of proficiency. The differences in emotional resonance have been, naturally enough, attributed to the native language being acquired first. This finding suggests the story is a little more complicated.

The researchers theorize that they have touched on the mechanism by which emotion controls our fundamental thought processes. They suggest that the brain is trying to protect us by minimizing the effect of distressing or disturbing emotional content, by shutting down the unconscious access to the native language (in which the negative words would be more strongly felt).

A few more technical details for those interested:

The Chinese controls demonstrated longer reaction times than the English controls, which suggests (given that 60% of the Chinese word pairs had overt sound repetitions but no semantic relatedness) that this conjunction made the task substantially more difficult. The bilinguals, however, had reaction times comparable to the English controls. The Chinese controls showed no effect of emotional valence, but did show priming effects of the overt sound manipulation that were equal for all emotion conditions.

The native Chinese speakers had recently arrived in Britain to attend an English course. Bilinguals had been exposed to English since the age of 12 and had lived in Britain for an average of 20.5 months.


[2969] Wu YJ, Thierry G. How Reading in a Second Language Protects Your Heart. The Journal of Neuroscience [Internet]. 2012 ;32(19):6485 - 6489. Available from:


Reply to comment | Mempowered

Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide
credit and sources back to your blog? My website is in the very same area of interest as yours and my visitors would
definitely benefit from some of the information
you present here. Please let me know if this okay with you.

Re: Inquiry

Certainly you may quote me (but not copy entire articles), as long as you credit me and link back to the relevant page.
Thank you for your interest,


Related News

A small study that fitted 29 young adults (18-31) and 31 older adults (55-82) with a device that recorded steps taken and the vigor and speed with which they were made, has found that those older adults with a higher step rate performed better on memory tasks than those who were more sedentary.

A small study using an artificial language adds to evidence that new vocabulary is learned more easily when the learner uses gestures.

We talk about memory for ‘events’, but how does the brain decide what an event is? How does it decide what is part of an event and what isn’t?

Evidence is accumulating that age-related cognitive decline is rooted in three related factors: processing speed slows down (because of myelin

Here’s an encouraging study for all those who think that, because of age or physical damage, they must resign themselves to whatever cognitive impairment or decline they have suffered.

A small study shows how those on the road to Alzheimer’s show early semantic problems long before memory problems arise, and that such problems can affect daily life.

The relative ease with which children acquire language has produced much debate and theory, mirroring the similar quantity of debate and theory over how we evolved language. One theory of language evolution is that it began with gesture.

A small Swedish brain imaging study adds to the evidence for the cognitive benefits of learning a new language by investigating the brain changes in students undergoing a highly intensive language course.

Back in 2009, I reported briefly on a large Norwegian study that found that older adults who consumed chocolate, wine, and tea performed significantly better on cognitive tests.

We know that we remember more 12 hours after learning if we have slept during that 12 hours rather than been awake throughout, but is this because sleep is actively helping us remember, or because being awake makes it harder to remember (because of interference and over-writing from other experi


Subscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest newsSubscribe to Latest health news